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Rick Reilly and Notre Dame: Takes one to know one

“And this offends you as a Jewish person?”
–“No, it offends me as a comedian.”

As I read Rick Reilly’s rip job on Notre Dame football this morning, I took umbrage. I borrowed against future umbrage, raising my umbrage debt ceiling. Sloan Sabbith cut short her raver in order to warn me about how much umbrage I had accumulated, but I cared not.

You may be aware that I am an alumnus of Notre Dame, but I was not offended by Reilly’s piece as a Domer.

I was offended as a journalist… and, to a lesser degree, as an inveterate fan of Riles.

The piece, which ironically enough appeared on the Feast of the Assumption (Catholics celebrate it as the happy departure of Mary – you know, the woman who made Jesus peanut butter-and-fig sandwiches, the namesake of Notre Dame – from this earthly life), has the suits in Bristol leaping over interns from Connecticut College to high-five one another.

Were they ecstatic because it was so brilliant and incisive? No. The were going all Reese Lansing (and, yes, that’s my second Newsroom reference; I’ll stop now) because it generated massive amounts of page views. In fact, I’d love to know the last time a Reilly column generated as many clicks on ESPN.com.

Notre Dame Stadium

The piece was lazy and, as much as Notre Dame fans may hate to admit it, it has been written before and often with good reason. The premise, that Notre Dame football in the post-Holtz era has been mind-numbingly mediocre, is accurate. The conclusion, that Notre Dame football as a brand should hence be relegated based on its performance, is funny. And here’s why.

Rick Reilly is the highest-paid sportswriter in America. And, hence, we should expect better of him than to bang out a shopworn piece of tripe like he delivered today. Perhaps, because he is so handsomely remunerated (and let’s face it, just plain handsome), we should hold him to a higher standard.

We should say, “Riles, you were once the most brilliant and creative press box pundit in existence – and I know because I often fact-checked the wonderfully creative and trenchant stories you filed at Sports Illustrated – but you lost the muse along some back nine that you were playing. Would you mind returning some of that income to young, industrious sportswriters who are consistently outworking you (Dan Kane of the Raleigh News & Observer comes to mind) right now? Would you be willing to be paid what you deserve in terms of your recent performance?”

Reilly did not need to make this a personal issue, but he did the moment he infused himself into the piece, what with his dad flunking out of Notre Dame (I’m dubious, but I’ll take his word for it) and referring to himself as a vestigial fan of the Fighting Irish.

None of that matters.

In 1919, Knute Rockne’s second season, the Irish went 9-0 and their football program made a net profit of less than $15,000. In 1928, Rockne’s 11th season, the Irish finished 5-4 and banked close to half a million dollars. As both Rockne and Reilly can tell you, legends get paid on past performance all the time.

I love Rick Reilly, and despite what you may think, I truly admire him. I wrote Reilly when I was a college student, back when he wrote a gamer on Miami-Oklahoma that was pure genius and hilarity. He wrote me back, and it was not just an honor to work with him, it was great fun. Rick is a true prince of a guy.

He has personally taught me so much about sports writing – e.g., cut out two of every three jokes you make, a lesson I still do not adhere to often enough. Riles preached about saying something in a way that you’d never seen it said before, and there are numerous examples of such. Riles once wrote an entire 230-line story that was a single sentence. And the gimmick worked.

Notre Dame is nowhere near what it was in its prime, and it may never return to that stage. I’m not sure if the same cannot be said about Reilly. What I do know is that neither of them is about to return the money nor prestige that they have accrued.

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